Atmore News publisher/co-owner booked in jail Feb. 12 on revealing evidence from grand juror, ethics charges

Published 2:37 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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The Atmore News’ co-owner and publisher was booked into the Escambia County Detention Center in Brewton Feb. 12 on revealing evidence from a grand juror, witness and ethics charges, according to jail records.


Sherry A. Digmon, 73, of Atmore, was booked at 2:29 p.m. and released at 3:05 p.m., according to the jail report.

Digmon’s ethics charge was for allegedly disclosing confidential information, according to the jail log.

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Digmon, who also serves as the District 6 representative on the Escambia County Board of Education (Ala.), and Reporter Don Fletcher were arrested Oct. 27, 2023 for allegedly revealing grand jury evidence in the Atmore News’ Oct. 25 edition. In the Oct. 25 edition, subpoena and COVID checks were mentioned and names were noted, according to Advance archives.

According to reports, Digmon’s booking on Monday was a walk through, or procedure on the same charge. Brewton Attorney Earnest White filed a motion to dismiss the (revealing grand jury evidence) charges against Digmon and Fletcher.

According to reports, retired Autauga County Circuit Judge Ben Fuller was asked by White through the motion to dismiss the charges. A status hearing will be held on Feb. 26 at 9 a.m., where Fuller is slated to rule on the motions, according to reports.

According to the motion to dismiss filed by White, Digmon has been indicted for allegedly revealing evidence from the grand jury, and the “prosecution of Digmon in this matter is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

The filing goes on to state that Digmon “printed an article containing grand jury investigation information, and allegedly published the story at issue after receiving an anonymous tip. Digmon was not involved in the grand jury of Escambia County in any way,” the motion said.

According to Advance archives, Alabama Press Association General Counsel Dennis Bailey said the answer to whether it’s proper for journalists to publish grand jury information depends on how the information is acquired and the nature of the information.

“If the reporter is a witness before the grand jury, (the reporter) has a restriction on disclosing the questions that were asked and what actually happened inside the grand jury room,” Bailey said. “Anybody can potentially violate the grand jury statute by illegally obtaining the information due to coercion for the purpose of trying to influence the grand jury proceedings. If that’s what happened, then the answer is no, it’s not proper and it can be a violation to coerce people to give information about the grand jury that’s secret.”

However, Bailey said in his opinion if a person gets a grand jury subpoena and gives the information on the grand jury subpoena to a reporter, and the reporter had nothing to do with obtaining it illegally, then it wouldn’t be a violation of the grand jury secrecy act.

“There’s a Supreme Court case (in 2001) where a reporter was given information that was gathered improperly by eaves dropping techniques, or illegal wire tapping. The person gave that information to the reporter, and the reporter was arrested for disseminating illegal wiretap information. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court said as long as the reporter had nothing to do with the illegal wire tapping that went on, for a matter of public concern, the reporter can publish truthful information that had been illegally obtained by others. They have a First Amendment right to do that.”

White mentioned the 2001 Supreme Court case in the motion to dismiss.

On the statute that Digmon and Fletcher were arrested for on Oct. 27, Bailey said it deals with two parts, one of which includes those involved in the grand jury process keeping it secret.

“The second part of it pertains to anybody who coerces somebody else to give information about the grand jury process,” he said. “When a subpoena has been issued, and once the subpoena has been served to the witness, the argument is that it’s no longer secretive information. What testimony is given in the grand jury is supposed to be secret,” Bailey said.

In addition to Digmon and Fletcher, Escambia County School System Payroll/Benefits Clerk Veronica Fore was also arrested on the same charge, according to Advance archives.

Regarding how the Atmore News acquired the grand jury information, Bailey said that in Alabama reporters are protected under the Shield Law in Alabama State Code 12-21-142, which says a reporter, in the course of their business, cannot be questioned by a court or grand jury to give up the name of their source.

“I don’t know what happened here, but if somebody gives a reporter grand jury information with a promise of confidentiality, then a reporter can refuse to divulge the source and is protected by statute,” Bailey said last November.

The Shield Law states: No person engaged in, connected with or employed on any newspaper, radio broadcasting station or television station, while engaged in a news-gathering capacity, shall be compelled to disclose in any legal proceeding or trial, before any court or before a grand jury of any court, before the presiding officer of any tribunal or his agent or agents or before any committee of the Legislature or elsewhere the sources of any information procured or obtained by him and published in the newspaper, broadcast by any broadcasting station, or televised by any television station on which he is engaged, connected with or employed.

According to White’s motion, the “state of Alabama is seeking to punish the publication of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct, speech which has traditionally been recognized as lying at the core of the First Amendment, referring to Buttersworth, 494 U.S. at 632.”

“The information published was lawfully obtained via an anonymous tip to the newspaper, and the information was about a matter of public significance,” the motion stated. “The operations of the Escambia County Board of Education are a matter of public interest, necessarily engaging the attention of the news media. The article published by Atmore News, like the publisher in Landmark Communications, provided accurate information and, in doing so, clearly served those interests in public scrutiny and discussion of governmental affairs, which the First Amendment was adopted to protect.”

The motion later stated that District Attorney Steve Billy chose to discuss grand jury proceedings at a meeting (Oct. 12, 2023) of the Escambia County Board of Education. The Atmore News received the information anonymously and published it only after Billy discussed the grand jury proceedings at said meeting, the motion said.

According to Advance archives, Billy said the article mentioned he said, “that (subpoena and COVID checks were mentioned) at the school board meeting, which is not correct at all.”

“I didn’t mention anything about COVID at all. That was just misinformation. They were at the meeting. That was, I think, calculated,” Billy said.

During the meeting Billy was referring, the district attorney spoke in defense of Superintendent Michele McClung, whose contract was not renewed by the board.

“I normally don’t get involved in things of this nature,” Billy said during the Oct. 12 meeting. “There have been rumors and attacks against Ms. McClung, and an audit that revealed nothing. This lady is not going to be brought before a grand jury because there is nothing to bring her there. There will be other things to come before the grand jury that I’m not at liberty to reveal. She doesn’t have an agenda. She loves children. There has been progress. She wants to do the right thing and is ethical. Look at the oath you took. Look at your duties. Are you going to undo the progress made?”

Digmon and Fletcher were arrested Oct. 27 for violating Alabama State Code 12-16-215, which states: Grand juror, witness, etc., are prohibited from revealing, disclosing, etc., a juror’s questions, considerations, etc.; no person to directly, indirectly, etc., by any means obtain information as to juror’s questions, considerations, etc. No past or present grand juror, past or present grand jury witness or grand jury reporter or stenographer shall willfully at any time directly or indirectly, conditionally or unconditionally, by any means whatever, reveal, disclose or divulge or attempt or endeavor to reveal, disclose or divulge or cause to be revealed, disclosed or divulged, any knowledge or information pertaining to any grand juror’s questions, considerations, debates, deliberations, opinions or votes on any case, evidence, or other matter taken within or occurring before any grand jury of this state. Nor shall any person at any time, directly or indirectly, conditionally or unconditionally by any means whatever, corruptly or with intent to influence a grand juror or other person authorized by law to attend a grand jury, or by threat of harm to person or property, or by force applied to person or property, or by threatening letter or communication, or by offer of reward, remuneration, gift, benefit or thing of value of whatever nature or kind, obtain or endeavor to obtain, any information pertaining to, or any knowledge of any grand juror’s questions, considerations, debates, deliberations, opinions or votes on any case, evidence or other matter taken or transpiring within or before any grand jury of this state.

The motion to dismiss was filed Feb. 13.

As of press time Tuesday, Billy and White didn’t return calls for comment.